Before Sean Penn’s Academy Award-winning performance as Harvey Milk, it’s a fair guess that not too many people under the age of forty had ever heard of the first openly gay man elected to a major public office in the U.S. Dustin Lance Black’s movie changed all that, and now, Dear Harvey, a powerful dramatization of Milk’s words and those of the people who knew and worked with him, arrives at West Hollywood’s Lee Strasberg Theatre as a companion piece to the film, and one well worth seeing.

Playwright Patricia Loughrey conducted over thirty interviews with friends and colleagues of the slain gay rights activist, excerpts of which she put together to form a kind of verbal “Harvey Milk Quilt,” an apt metaphor since it was Milk acolyte Cleve Jones who conceived of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In the same way that the AIDS Quilt pays tribute to the thousands who died during the early years of the epidemic, so too does Loughrey’s “word quilt” pay tribute to a man whose life ended far too soon. As one of the characters in Dear Harvey wonders aloud, who knows how much sooner action would have been taken to combat AIDS had Harvey been around to lead the fight?

Dear Harvey’s focus is, needless to say, on the pre-AIDS years that Milk spent in San Francisco building a coalition of gays, lesbians, senior citizens, and other minorities united in a battle, not just for gay rights, but for the rights of all the downtrodden. Milk’s time in public office was short, only eleven months in all, but his legacy has lived on long after his assassination in 1978.

Loughrey’s play began its life last year at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre in a Dan Kirsch-directed production which traveled just last month to New York’s Fringe Festival. The current West Hollywood production grew out of a May 2010 reading at Celebration Theatre, directed then and now by Anthony Frisina, with several cast members returning for this fully-staged four-week run.

The all-around terrific ensemble (Clifford Banagale, Vash Boddie, Alice Ensor, Michael Taylor Gray, John Meeks, Jordana Oberman, Vance Roi Reyes, Laura Sanzo, and Heidi Sultzman at the performance reviewed) remain onstage at all times, but Frisina’s imaginative staging insures that Dear Harvey never becomes static, the cast alternately standing, sitting, speaking, listening attentively, or reacting, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, to whoever is sharing his or her recollections of Harvey.

Narrator Sanzo provides biographical background and a passionate Meeks speaks Harvey’s words. Other cast members assume multiple voices, accents, and physical demeanors—effectively and distinctly—as they embody the real-life people whose lives Harvey touched.

Reyes is California State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, Sultzman portrays Harvey’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, and Gray becomes Harvey’s openly gay nephew Stuart. Ensor scores with an alternately funny and moving coming out declaration, demonstrating just how hard it can be to say those three little words “I am gay” and Oberman has great fun as a “Meet Your Local Lesbian” gay activist. Boddie creates two night-and-day different people as drag queen Nicole Murray-Ramirez and photo journalist Dan Nicoletta. Sultzman reads a homophobic hate letter from the heartland that casts chills, and a particularly strong Banagale inspires the evening’s emotional high point as he describes, in AIDS and LGBT activist Cleve Jones’ voice, the inspiration for the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The original San Diego production had young Thomas Hodges, who wrote the show’s original music and performed it in San Diego, reading aloud his own “Letter To Harvey.” Here the task goes to Reyes, who does inspiring justice to Hodges’ words. As for the 21-year-old San Diegan’s background score, it is exquisitely performed at the Strasberg by musical director Wayne Moore on piano and Jyvonne Haskin on cello.

Though the Dear Harvey playbill credits no designer for either set, lighting, or sound, all three are effective indeed, the jet black stage and its collection red chairs lit both from above and by candle jars dispersed across the stage. Afton A. Garrett is costume designer.

Dear Harvey serves as an excellent live supplement to Milk (The Movie) as well as to the books, documentaries, and exhibits dedicated to the preservation of Harvey’s legacy. Hopefully Frisina and cast will be able to make the rounds of local high schools with this stirring production. In the meantime, those in the mood for some inspirational, educational, entertaining theater can find it at WeHo’s Lee Strasberg Theater. Harvey would be proud to see how his words, and those of the people he called his friends, continue to impact our country and our world nearly thirty years after the events of November 27, 1978 robbed us of his life and leadership.

Lee Strasberg Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
September 23, 2010

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